Justin Bieber is just plain fascinating.
We spend countless hours dissecting him. There are think-pieces about his behavior. Paparazzi track his every move, hoping he'll slip up. Fans on Twitter spam me defending him whenever I publish a post about him. And now, with his upcoming album, Purpose, on the way and a full cycle's worth of promo under way, it's even harder not to focus in on Bieber.
He's survived a nearly two-year stretch of bad press that painted him as a bad apple and a brat. But in his attempts to atone for his stinky past, a new (really apologetic) Bieber emerged. So just which one of these 21-year-olds is the real Justin Bieber?
BOTH BIEBERS COME UP as I was chatting with a group of friends at dinner this week, talking about the pop star's latest mistake, where he got fed up with fans in the front row of an Oslo, Norway show and stormed offstage, leaving them screaming in agony. My friends say: "It was unprofessional." "It's just another thing he has to apologize for." "It proves that he can never shed his bad-boy past." But to me all that proved is that Bieber isn't just a celebrity -- he's also human.
To critics who doubt Bieber has changed for the better, that moment when he stormed offstage was like a flashback to the two years of chaos in 2013 and 2014 that followed his speedy rise to fame -- the era when he was peeing in mop buckets and dissing Bill Clinton, when he was arrested for drag racing in Florida, when he was charged for throwing eggs at his neighbor's house, when drugs were found in his house and when it seemed he was photographed smoking weed every other week.
It was a time when he was making messes quicker than his PR team could clean them up. Manager Scooter Braun admitted that he gave him an ultimatum at the time -- stop, or end your career. Last week, Bieber even revealed that he ruined his relationship with his mom, who has since moved to Hawaii.
But Bieber is better now, as he would like us to think. His reformation -- call it the "Sorry" Bieber era -- started after his relationship with Selena Gomez ended in October 2014, and it seemed like he was trying to reevaluate his life (like many do after a breakup). He went on "Ellen," and then apologized in a video for appearing nervous and awkward on her show (his behavior was fine, by the way). He signed on for a Comedy Central Roast of himself to show that, yes, he was self-aware and wasn't oblivious to the ruckus he'd caused.
He started releasing new music -- the calming vocals at the beginning of "Where Are U Now" connected more than ever as he sang about the end of a relationship. Everyone can relate to a breakup story. The public began to empathize.
Justin seemed to be back on track. In interview after interview on the Purpose press tour, he claimed to be a new man, and if he made a mistake, he was working on it. "I don't always handle things the right way but I'm human and I'm working on getting better at responding not reacting," Bieber apologized via Instagram after leaving the stage in Norway.
So we're left to wonder: Which one of these is actually Justin? The bad-boy singer who walks out on his own show? Or is it the apologetic singer who doesn't like to let his fans down? Will there always be a bit of the badass in him or was that all an act he created to fit in with a certain crowd?
IT SEEMS LIKE JUSTIN DOESN'T KNOW how to be right now. As an up-and-coming pop star, he was the kid that everybody loved and everybody loved to make fun of. Although he had a loyal fanbase, it seemed like the rest of the world found joy in mocking his floppy hairstyle and his cherubic charisma. And, unfortunately, what often happens is that when everyone's poking fun at you, you try to find another way to be. So he chopped his hair, started saying "swag," developed a taste for expensive cars and started hanging out with models. At one point he even tried to grow a mustache. Of course, it also appeared to be a normal progression as any for a famous teen.
In 2012, I went to his Believe Tour concert, where one of the video interludes mashed up tabloid reporters asking, "Can Justin Bieber make the transition from boy to man?" A montage of his early Youtube videos were juxtaposed with paparazzi footage and headlines. Sure, he had risen to fame as a little dude, but could he transition into adulthood as smoothly as everyone wanted him too?
Bieber started hanging out with rappers. It was as if he wanted to shrug off all of the expectations. We saw him posing shirtless with Rick Ross, biting a stripper's nipples, spending late nights in clubs. If Justin wasn't a man now, what else could he do? Was this Justin? Or was he just miming rappers to look cool?
Many could say that all the trouble that came afterward was just the byproduct of being a teen. But think about it this way: When you have every pressure in the world to act the "right" way, you might just choose to give up on what people think altogether.
And that's where Braun's ultimatum came in. The manager had to help his star get away from the mounting pressure or help him navigate his growing fame: "Either we quit and let you try and find a normal life or you realize that this is what this is and we’ve got to keep fighting," he told Justin in 2014, according to a GQ interview.
WHICH LEADS US TO THIS "APOLOGY TOUR" that people love talking about. Justin started to care again. He has a song called "Sorry" and behaves like someone who's convinced he's going to be blamed for something at every turn. In fact, Rolling Stone published a list of every time he's apologized.
Depending on how you look at it, Braun's ultimatum has worked so far.
"Scooter is probably one of the smartest people that I have ever met," Bieber said in an i-D interview this week. "He keeps me driven, for sure. Because the artist always wants to chill. Like, 'I made my money. I just want to chill'. But he figures out ways for me to get excited about what I want."
But what does Justin want? Does he secretly want to lay low? Or does he want his screaming fans? The few clues we can judge by bring us back to his behavior and his music -- and the former, recently, has been subdued. Just look at him interacting with fans -- the energy slightly damped, as if someone came through with a light blanket and doused some of his childhood spunk:
You can tell he still loves his fans, and is probably exploding inside but tries to play it cool.
In a way, it's like Justin is hiding from himself because he's afraid of what people will say -- he made the bold move of dyeing his hair platinum blonde this summer but then hastily covered it up, creating his now signature look of baseball cap and hoodie, concealing any trace of the stand-out hair choice. He wants to make moves, but he doesn't want to step too far.
If Justin doesn't have that in-your-face boldness anymore, it seems to be because he's purposely toning it down -- holding back a little. There are moments, though, when he goes all in -- like when he's dumping Hennessy onstage with Rae Sremmurd. He's unapologetic at times, but just as quickly we hear him saying sorry.
It's complicated, but that's being human. And even if we don't really, truly know Bieber, we do know one thing -- humans are a flawed, and Justin is no god.
So, who is Justin Bieber? My guess is that he's still figuring that out. He might not fully be the person he wants to be, but he's also not who everyone else wants him to be. He's somewhere in the middle, trying to please while still staying true to himself. But take it from Bieber himself:
"If someone asked me, 'Who is the real Justin Bieber?' I'd have to say ... I'm just really a nice guy," Bieber said with a wink in his i-D interview. Simple as that.